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Moving the Checker Forward

Jay Myers, Founder, President and CEO, ISITn

As the founder of a technology company, Interactive Solutions, Inc., I would be the first to say that we are all about the kind of innovative products that have the potential to make lives better and build more robust businesses.

In our industry - videoconferencing equipment - which has been around for a few decades, the product we offer features high-tech "microscopable" cameras with beam splitters. These enable doctors, for example, to peer into a person's eardrum from miles away. Other features allow doctors to view a baby's tiny heart, again remotely. Using our equipment, physicians can make a diagnosis without ever having touched (or even met) the patient.

Consider for a moment what this means. Patients in remote communities can now have access to specialists at leading urban medical centers. Those institutions, in turn, can serve a broader population more efficiently, leading to increases in revenue and profit. In another market into which we sell, namely education, the equipment offers the potential for new vistas of a different sort. An eager student, for example, can take the advanced courses that might have otherwise been out of reach for lack of a qualified teacher.

Technology, indeed, has its wonders. However, the marketers of technology, such as our company and so many entrepreneurial shops, must also contend with a more ordinary endeavor: the job of getting those innovative products to market. This is a task that is far removed from wonder and awe. Indeed, it is all about the dogged work involved in identifying prospective customers, researching their needs, and keeping after them until they see the value of the technology, how it can solve their business problem.

We like to think of the process as moving a checker forward - as players do in the venerable board game of Checkers - slowly, deliberately, at a measured pace and always with the belief that one will prevail.

What Eludes Technologists

Our type of selling eludes a lot of tech entrepreneurs, who assume that a new product will sell itself on its features. So many assume they can just march up to a customer and say, "I have this new device. Here it is. You tell me how you can justify it, and then let me try to sell it to you." However, nothing can be further from the truth - or more destructive to the hopes of fledgling companies.

In our case, it has been even more critical that we not get our product to market on the allure of the promise inherent in our technology. For one thing, the promise might strike some potential customers as so futuristic that they might easily be scared off, or convinced that this is something that they could think about tomorrow. For another, they need to be convinced that the equipment can really make what they do better and at a cost they can justify.

In our business, lead times are especially long, at least six months and as much as two years or even more. Nonetheless, although we have been in business for a mere six years and have a small staff of 11 - only three of whom are in sales - we've managed to parlay our sales technique to close on 80 percent of our prospects. In the past year, moreover, our revenue reached a respectable $5 million.

To achieve such results, we've worked with a go-to-market strategy called "relationship selling" that is both multi-layered and, at points, paradoxical. We must cast a wide net for customers, yet zero in on only those markets - in our case, telemedicine and education - and on only those customers within those markets for whom the equipment is a priority. While realizing that the actual sale may be months or even years away, we must nonetheless constantly keep in touch, serving up dollops of our expertise as we await the light bulb to go off - and the sale to come through.

In addition, while we emphasize the fact that our product will enable the prospects' enterprises to save money doing what it is they do, we must also navigate the tangled web of personal interactions at those companies that are intrinsic to selling to the type of people who make decisions about purchasing sophisticated equipment.

Dissecting the Process

That's the overview. Just as in a board game, the tactics involved in "relationship selling" start first with targeting a goal, or, more precisely, creating a need. What we sell is a solution for fixing problems. In our case, we chose telemedicine, for one, because in the six Southeastern states in which we operate, we noticed that there are numerous rural communities that are underserved by primary hospitals.

In Tupelo, Mississippi, for example, a remote hospital didn't have specialized care for pediatric cardiology patients. By utilizing the telemedical equipment provided by our company, doctors in a major hospital in Memphis, Tennessee were able to provide critical care support remotely, which they have been doing for the past four years.

Yet innovative thinking isn't something potential customers do for themselves. It is up to us, as sort of purveyors of the "Fields of Dreams," to present the possibilities. Within our targeted pool of prospects, therefore, we need to winnow the list further and then do a lot of convincing. One tool involves exhaustive research for finding the most likely prospects; often we rely on referrals from customers who have used and are satisfied with our equipment. Just as frequently, we approach prospects ourselves, saying that a customer "like them" has benefited from our products.

What we call "lunch and learns" is a variation on this theme. People have to eat; so we bring them to our headquarters, not to sell to them, but to educate them about the value of our product. Businesses are being run every day without videoconferencing equipment; our challenge is to show potential users the advantages of moving beyond the status quo.

Wooing The Prospect

Once we've identified the most likely candidates, we realize that the actual sale will likely be some time coming. First, our job will be to assess prospects' needs, and slowly, and over many weeks and months, convince them that we can provide the solution.

A tactic at this stage is to proceed in the manner of an attorney, assessing needs by taking a deposition of sort. Engaging in such an extensive interview, we try to determine if the educator, for example, needs a remote campus to be accessed or a certain course to be provided, such as an advanced placement offering in a high school.

We don't give answers at this point, we just ask questions, and then we go back with the information they've supplied, and we noodle about it for a while. Then we are likely to suggest a series of meetings involving some technical discussions and interplay, along with multiple demonstrations of our equipment and a discussion of return-on-investment issues. Bubbling up from all of this is a galvanized proposal that doesn't leave a lot of room for them to say no; indeed, it's mapped to produce nothing but a win for us. The checker is finally closing in on the other side of the board.

Of course, between the many meetings are lengthy down times, which we also use to our advantage. As technical experts, we make ourselves available to prospects should they have an issue or a question, even if it isn't directly related to our product. All of which continually reinforces in their minds that we are the masters of this subject and also allows us to keep tabs on them.

The People Matter

In relationship selling, the people matter - they are what separates our game from the analogous board encounter. And we deal with them on several levels. While the people at our point of sale - those that actually make the purchase - are executives or senior administrators, we must contend first with those in gatekeeper roles.

IT-type gatekeepers, for example - IT standing for information technology - who walk through companies everyday in jeans and a new pair of Nikes, cell phone clipped on one side of their belts and a pager on the other, pretty stressed out: we meet them where they are.

We say, first, we aren't going to add to your workload with our equipment, because we're selling a turnkey solution. That's the gatekeeper's biggest fear, more work. And second, we're giving you the nucleus of a project that you can commandeer, selling its benefits to your superiors and providing a realistic return-on-investment model for them. Once those bosses take note, you, the IT person, will likely win pay raises and promotions.

See what I'm getting at? Now, as for the people who really make the decisions, the problem is that we may eventually sell so effectively to them that they like the idea but consider going with a lower-cost competitor. Our tactic is to diffuse that notion right away. We say, "Look, you can buy the product from…" and we name the competitor. Then we go through all the reasons why Brand X doesn't make sense and ours does, given what they've told us about what they need.

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